Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been saying the same things his entire political career. He staked out once far-flung positions on social issues that have only recently entered the political mainstream, such as LGBT equality. There is a heartwarming video of him defending gay service members in the military on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1995, a year before President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. In his endorsement message for Jesse Jackson in 1988, a long shot candidate for President, he said that Jackson was bringing together “all people who are looking for fundamental changes in our current political and economic system and new national priorities.” He even squeezed in a favorite phrase of his on the campaign trail today, “enough is enough,” while declaring his support for Jackson, a refrain that his supporters have taken to saying with him.
Senator Sanders did not limit his view of just what those new national priorities should be to domestic responsibilities. His last bullet-point reason for endorsing Jackson notes that, as President, the reverend would “change the direction of American foreign policy and become an ally of the struggling peoples of the Third World, not their oppressor.” Again, Bernie demonstrates the implacability of his worldview. At the PBS debate on February 11th, he made swipes at past U.S. foreign policy decisions at almost every opportunity, citing the seeming impulse for regime change over the past sixty years that policymakers indulged without understanding what the consequences of those actions might be. He noted that this was an area in which he and Secretary Clinton disagreed “in kind of a vague way, or not so vague.”
In the context of the rest of his remarks on foreign policy, Bernie sounded as though he was thinking out loud when he said that last part, inviting us into the inner shakiness that he evinces whenever he spends more than a few insignificant moments on the subject. He seems stuck in the 1970s. He compared the 2011 Libyan intervention to the overthrow of Mossaddegh in 1953, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran who attempted to nationalize British oil fields. He calls Syria and Iraq “quagmires,” the label famously applied to the Vietnam War. He decried Secretary Clinton’s relationship with Henry Kissinger, the seminal national security advisor and Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations, from 1969 to 1977. He spoke of the wrongheadedness of the domino theory, which was widely discredited in the wake of Vietnam and has not influenced a decision in an administration since Lyndon Johnson’s, in the 60s. It has been utterly irrelevant since the end of the Cold War, which was over a quarter century ago. He ties the degradation of workers’ wages over the past thirty years to Nixon’s trip to China, widely regarded as a diplomatic coup and a major foreign policy success.
O.K., so his frame of reference is dated a few decades. That comes with the territory of being seventy-four. If anything, this should inform his perspective on the world today, right? That doesn’t seem to be the case. Senator Sanders, to use a dated reference, is like Wile E. Coyote. He zooms forward on the firm policy ground of campaign finance reform, chasing the road runner of political revolution, until he runs onto the empty space of his foreign policy knowledge, suspended in air and floating about as long as voters allow him to.
At the February 4th Democratic debate, Meet the Press anchor and debate moderator Chuck Todd asked Senator Sanders why he hasn’t unveiled a foreign policy doctrine yet. The Senator responded by mentioning a Georgetown speech in November in which he claimed his comments on foreign policy had been eclipsed by his discussion of democratic socialism. So we went back and took a look at the speech. It’s not impressive. In over an hour, he only made mention of ISIS, ignoring four of the five threats that Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter laid out earlier this month as those most threatening to U.S. national security, and only partially covering the last one. He laid out intentions to engage in unilateralism as a last resort, to create an organization like NATO “to defeat the rise of violent extremism” (who knows what that could mean), and called on “Western powers, Muslim nations, and countries like Russia” to take part of a coalition fighting ISIS. Why didn’t President Obama think of that? His last substantive point was to say that countries in the Middle East have to put aside their religious differences and focus on ISIS. That is all well and good, but in what world would any of that prove plausible? Such views illustrate almost zero understanding of the underlying dynamics fueling ISIS and allowing non-state actors more broadly to thrive in states of anarchy. Bernie seems to live in a realm of infinite possibilities that has a barely tangential relationship with reality. While this can also be said of his domestic agenda, his foreign policy views seem to be based on concerted ignorance rather than willful idealism.
In that Georgetown speech, he mentions King Abdullah of Jordan’s November 15th speech on the threat of terrorism to the Middle East. Perhaps this helps explain Senator Sanders’s mispronounced references to the hereditary dictator of Jordan as a crutch on which to lean anytime he was asked to discuss his views on ISIS since. In any case, he never seems comfortable when discussing anything outside the U.S. He criticized Secretary Clinton “ in a vague way” about her alleged support for regime change, then in the same breath, cited his wish to see Libya “move to democracy” as the rationale for his support of the U.N. Security Council’s 2011 intervention there. He could not explain why he believed North Korea was the largest threat to national security beyond that the rogue state lives “in a very strange situation.” One wonders why, if he views North Korea as our greatest threat, his focus has singularly been on ISIS.
Bernie does have substantive differences with Secretary Clinton, who is farther to the right on foreign policy than most of the Democratic base and the current Democratic president. The Secretary has yet to explain why she supports no-fly zones over Syria, which Bernie spent a fragment of a sentence addressing in one of the seven Democratic debates that have taken place. The problem is that his foreign policy views lack any coherence, and he does not seem to have done any critical thinking about them in a little under a half-century.
Senator Sanders is no longer applying for the job of representing a small, white, rural state tucked away in a corner of the country. Even for that position, he should know more than he does. Running for president with his level of profound, studied ignorance is a fatal flaw to his candidacy. One can only hope that you can teach an old dog new tricks, but conventional wisdom begs to differ.